Banks — “Crowded Places”
By Nora McGreevy
“Hey,” Jillian Banks whispers on the opening seconds of her newest single, “Crowded Places.” Banks, who goes by her surname onstage, starts out quiet and low, delicately layering warbly vocals over one another. She then breaks into the chorus and lifts her voice — but only somewhat: “‘Cause I’ve been scared of crowded places,” she confesses.
It’s a surprising admission of vulnerability from Banks, who positioned herself on her 2016 album “The Altar” as a resolutely edgy woman: “So I got edges that scratch,” she challenges on “Beggin For Thread.” Rather, in “Crowded Places,” she pairs breathy vocals with a low, melodic tune that evokes something more personal, and more intimate.
At first, “Crowded Places” strikes as both musically and linguistically simpler than Banks’ most recent work. Yet there’s something mesmerizing about the track’s simplicity, in the same way that speaking the same word out loud a few hundred times in a row might confuse or complicate its meaning for the listener. Here, repetition of the same phrase — “I’ve been scared of crowded places” — forms the linchpin of the song’s second half. As the line repeats, the intensity builds. A drum thumps methodically but loudly in the background, marking the rhythm of the chant. In the last few seconds of the song, what felt moments ago like a soft, tentative admission of loneliness morphs into a crescendo of something totally different, a hard-edged assertion of pain.
Harry Styles — “Sign of the Times”
By Jimmy Kemper
Well, it finally happened. Harry Styles, arguably the most popular former member of One Direction, dropped his inevitable debut solo track, “Sign of the Times,” last Friday. With this track, and the long delay in releasing it (three of the remaining four 1D-ers have already released solo work), Styles looks to set himself apart from his former friends, especially that Zayn kid.
It’s about more than simply being better than his boy-band buddies, though. Between interviewing Paul McCartney last year for life advice, citing Chris Martin as “the reason I love music” and finally announcing this track on the 30th anniversary of Prince’s “Sign O’ The Times,” Styles has made it pretty clear that he plans to chase pop’s biggest stars throughout his solo career.
That sort of ambition radiates throughout the entire track. Styles weaves big, classic glam rock piano progressions together with his even bigger voice in a move that just screams David Bowie, especially in the moments when these pieces crash against gnarly guitar riffs to create an epic and overwhelming atmosphere.
It’s Styles at his most impressive, and it’s unlike anything else on Top 40 Radio right now.
Big Thief — “Mythological Beauty”
By Mike Donovan
With “Masterpiece,” Big Thief’s phenomenal debut album, Adrianne Lenker and company brought us the Minnesotan woodlands by way of Brooklyn hipsterdom, so it was no surprise when NPR’s Bob Boilen raised his voice (above the usual two decibels) in praise of Big Thief’s artistic prospects upon the album’s release. “Masterpiece” was a tailor-made public radio darling.
Now that they have the NPR crowd in their back pocket, Big Thief feels comfortable moving beyond their homespun melodies into more adventurous waters. The track’s evocative imagery — “You cut the flesh of your left thumb / Using your boyfriends knife / Seventeen, you took his c– / And you gave birth to your first life” — offers signature Boilen-pleasing vulnerability but throws in enough edge to convert more demanding (and less rational) critics.
The track’s post-punk stylings evoke Big Thief’s fellow Brooklynites Sunflower Bean and Beach Fossils without completely abandoning the band’s Dylan-esque core. The resulting sound is immediate but corrosive, carefully balancing edge and melody. The adventurous developments on “Mythological Beauty” give us every reason to expect a brilliant sophomore LP from the young band.
Frank Ocean feat. Jay Z and Tyler, the Creator — “Biking”
By Jack Riedy
Like “Chanel,” Frank’s new single feels like the haze of his 2016 albums forced into a bleary-eyed focus. “Biking” is steeped in reflection for summers past. The lo-fi crackle surrounding Hov’s voice suggests he literally phoned it in, but the introductory verse is solid. “Handlebars like a Xanax” is a great triple entendre, but it could also be a Lil Uzi Vert lyric. Given Jay’s thematic distance from youth and the West Coast, his appearance here is an intergenerational exchange of coolness. The main attraction is the on-record reunion of Frank and Tyler, their first in four years. Tyler breaks a sweat on his BMX, emulating Disney Channel characters even as he rocks jewels earned with his grown-up wealth. His gravelly flow is a foil to Frank’s stuttering verses about popping pills and watching friends get married. The track climaxes with Frank absolutely bugging out about his net worth, screaming with a mix of joy, frustration and confusion. “God gave you what you can handle,” he croons throughout. No matter what changes come with the passage of time, that’s something to hold onto.